Rural California Feeds the Nation, But Too Many Rural Residents Can’t Feed and House Themselves

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

If you eat California lettuce, broccoli, or strawberries, chances are it came from the Salinas Valley. Situated in Monterey County, south of San Francisco, this so-called “salad bowl of the world” boasts an $8 billion agricultural economy that feeds America, but low wages and a dearth of low-income housing make it extremely difficult for many families to house and feed themselves. In Salinas, almost half of all elementary school students are homeless. For The California Sunday Magazine, Brian Goldstone profiles one family of five to tell the larger story of the many families who sleep in their cars and shelters, and the people who try to help them. Both parents work. Their three children attend public school, but a cascade of events left the family living in their minivan. There are a number of services to help the working poor here, but official definitions of homelessness are so skewed that many people in dire need cannot access these resources. Many families find help at the Family Resource Center and from school teachers like Cheryl Camany. “In Monterey County,” Goldstone reports, “approximately 8,000 schoolchildren were homeless last year, more than San Francisco and San Jose combined. For many of these kids, the safest, most dependable part of their lives is the school they attend.”

Camany’s ability to call attention to the scale and consequences of student homelessness had recently been paying off, and the mandate taken up by the resource center was being embraced by others: pastors and city leaders, school administrators and teachers. “There’s so much injustice outside these walls,” said Maria Castellanoz, a third-grade teacher, “but in my classroom, I make sure every student is treated with the dignity they deserve.” Over time, she had come to recognize the signs of homelessness among her students without them having to say anything. When she spotted a kid hoarding snacks underneath his jacket, she brought him extra food the next day. When students nodded off in class, she let them sleep, tutoring them later so they wouldn’t fall behind. All this had altered her understanding of what teaching should look like and what a school was for.

But there’s only so much a school can offer. It can’t give families apartments, or money, or jobs that pay a housing wage. It can’t pass stronger tenant-protection laws or prevent exploitation by unscrupulous landlords. Oscar Ramos, who heads the elementary teachers union, told me that he feared the long-term effects of such widespread volatility — that this “toxic stress,” as pediatricians have termed it, would leave its mark on the physical and emotional health of his students well into the future. “The more I learn about what these kids are carrying,” Ramos said, “the more overwhelmed I get.”

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